Chaplains for the UK’s Armed Forces will continue to be trained in Wales over the next five years.
The Ministry of Defence has awarded the contract to St Padarn’s Institute, the training arm of the Church in Wales. The Church has held the contract since 2001 but has had to bid for it every five years, against some of the UK’s top colleges and universities.
Winning the contract yet again is a huge accolade for St Padarn’s, says its Principal, the Revd Professor Jeremy Duff, who began the process of bidding a year ago.
He says, “To be chosen as the UK institution supplying high-level theological training for the MOD bolsters our post-graduate work, and keeps us at the forefront of an important area of Christian mission. We are delighted that our MTh Chaplaincy Studies Course covering areas of military ethics, contemporary mission, reflective practice and the broader areas of faith, belief and spirituality, is recognised as the best in the country and the first choice for the Ministry of Defence moving forward.
“Military Chaplains are agents of transformation to those parts of society and to those parts of the world that the traditional church struggles to reach. They can be found in some of the most dangerous parts providing spiritual support, pastoral care and moral guidance. They make a significant difference.”
At St Padarn’s the Military Chaplains study alongside chaplains from other disciplines, including health and education.
Tina Franklin who administrates this course, says, “I have been part of the Chaplaincy programme since it began in 2001 It is an honour and a pleasure to work with such a dedicated team of chaplains and I have seen how significant it has been in the lives of those who have attended. I am delighted that we have won the bid and look forward to continuing this work.”
Army Chaplain – Major Andrew Latifa
Being alongside soldiers as they face gunfire and explosions on the front line of conflict is the true calling of an Army chaplain. It is also a very privileged place to be, says Major Andrew Latifa who has served alongside troops in Iraq and Afghanistan during more than 10 years as an Army chaplain.
Andrew, who trained for ordination at what was then St Michael’s College and is now St Padarn’s, and joined the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department in 2005, says, “I have seen soldiers with tattoos of Jesus on the cross, which probably didn’t mean much when they had it done, other than it being artistic. All of a sudden, when they are in combat, that tattoo becomes central to their lives – they see the significance of Jesus and prayer becomes important. I’ve seen lads with texts of scripture which they’d written out in thick pen on canvas adhesive and they would put it on their bags and would quite happily talk about how they would read those words and say a prayer for their partner at home and just think about what they were doing that day.
“When the busyness of everyday life is stripped away you are left with what really matters – life and death – and it is then that people see there has to be more to life and faith becomes important. In a place of conflict people start to entertain the thoughts that they wouldn’t dare to when there’s a World Cup on TV or the sun’s out and the family is going to the beach. Thoughts of God aren’t all that alien any more because they understand that this world doesn’t have all the answers, that here are limits to what people can do and that there has got to be something better.”
A military chaplain is charged with the spiritual, moral and pastoral care of soldiers and their families, during conflicts and on camp. That includes duties common to all parish priests, such as organising regular worship and services for camp baptisms, weddings and funerals. It also means being someone soldiers can talk to and pray with about their fears and uncertainties, many of which go beyond the experience of most parish priests.
Andrew, who is now based with a logistics unit in England and completing the second year of the MTh (Military Chaplaincy) at St Padarn’s, says, “Soldiers are well trained and have responsibilities and when there is no other option they may have to take a life. That is something they may want to talk about with a priest, someone who is not part of the machinery of the Army. I may be listening to an informal confession or hearing something they just want to get off their chest or they may ask what I think God will think of them. They may want me to pray with them or for them and their loved ones, and help them process the past. As a chaplain you have lived, worked and trained with the soldiers you are with and you know them. They are not dangerous, irresponsible figures but thoughtful, spiritual souls who need some orientation and have asked you to give it.”
There is anger and fear to deal with too, says Andrew, who spent six months in Iraq in 2010 and five months in Afghanistan.
“You would be nuts if you didn’t get scared but you learn very quickly that you are part of a team of people who are professional and experienced.
“There are those angry moments with God – when you walk into a hospital and you see someone who, in the last few hours, has lost two legs and an arm, or eyesight, or the ability to have children. You think of the bigger picture, of people’s lives being turned upside down, and it hurts. You are angry about the fallen mess of the world we live in. But people dig deep and find the most amazing ways of dealing with their situations – there is a lot of hope.”
There is a growing demand for military chaplains, says Andrew. Recent years have seen a rise in the age of people being ordained for ministry as many enter having had a long career in a different field already. Finding clergy young and fit enough for the demands of the Army is proving a challenge.
For those who join, however, the rewards are many, including the chance to minister to a cohort of people not usually seen in the average parish church – young people.
“Falling in with young people, that concentration of 18-40 year-olds is just so good – you have that mission opportunity with people who probably wouldn’t participate in church life. Being with them in quiet times really motivates me – over time you start to see that it is a relay where you carry the baton for a season, hoping that what you do will be developed over the years so that at some point these young people will be confident enough in their faith and the liturgy to go to church, take their families and be active volunteers in their parish.”
Andrew also calls on churches to encourage former soldiers into their congregations.
“Ex-soldiers are always proactive and will be drawn to a church that has needs, opportunities and is looking for young people to volunteer – in fact, ex-servicemen are a goldmine for local churches.
“They are sometimes seen as rough people who have done unspeakable things but actually they are good folk who can do God’s work in bucketloads. The church has got a massive role in helping people who leave the forces. These are people used to having a sense of belonging in the Forces and when they leave, they want to belong to something else. I know that God’s church will offer them an identity and give them that comfort and purpose which they feel they lost when they left the Forces. I think we would be a much richer church if we could attract that service community.”
Serving in the Great War
A retired Welsh vicar looking for a small case to carry his vestments when on occasional duty was astounded when he opened the ‘gentleman’s leather case’ he had bid for online. Hidden inside he found a communion set, Commission and work book of a First World War Army chaplain.
“I opened the suitcase in the back of the car and was instantly struck by the smell of cordite, grease and war,” says the Revd Martin Reynolds, who lives in Newport. “It was extraordinary and very moving. I discovered that the kit belonged to the Revd C Aldred who had been commissioned as a chaplain in 1915. He was part of the 6th Oxford & Bucks light infantry. It included his Commission, signed by King George V, his communion set and linen and a work book about soldiers who had died. It gives a tactile presence to those terrible days.
“Fortunately, Mr Aldred survived the war and went onto serve in parishes around Wellingborough.”
More than 5,000 chaplains served alongside troops in WW1 and it is thought 179 were killed.